Umphrey's returns to State Theatre
By DAVE CLARK
Scene Music Critic
For those who believe that nothing exciting ever happens in South Bend on the weekends, Umphrey's McGee has two words — you're wrong.
Something very exciting happened on Friday night at the State Theatre. After a two-year hiatus from the recently reopened venue, Umphrey's McGee returned and presented the students and locals with one of the best performances of the band's history. While that may sound like a broad superlative, there are many factors to take into consideration.
First, it is important to consider what has happened and what the band has achieved in the two years since their last appearance at the State. Back in 1998 Umphrey's McGee was a freshly hatched campus band from Notre Dame which impressed many people by playing such a large venue so early in its career. That was then, and now Umphrey's McGee has two albums under its belt along with many appearances in areas such as Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, Madison, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Cincinnati and their most frequent stop, Chicago. Playing almost 80 shows a year has brought the band a couple of successful east coast jaunts with stops in New York, Buffalo, Boston, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Burlington, Vt. Their most recent album, Songs for Older Women was ranked number 46th in JamBands.com's top 50 albums of the year. With the momentum on their side, it seemed that their return to the State Theatre would be a fitting way to reflect on the past two years while bringing their music up to a new level as they look to the future.
As there was some historical significance, there was also a presence of a potent intangible — the atmosphere within the building. For those who have never been to the re-opened State Theatre, its enormous size, posh decor, and old-style nostalgia blend with plentiful bar availability, and well-remodeled seating and dance areas to create what is undoubtedly the best place to see a concert in South Bend.
The crowd was a mix of people, many of whom came to see Umphrey's McGee, familiar with what they would see, and many of whom came to enjoy the State Theatre, having little idea what Umphrey's McGee was all about. What was probably most important about the crowd was its size. Late in the evening the crowd spilled deep into the upper level seating areas and balconies creating one of the largest crowds ever at an Umphrey's McGee show. The crowd's size lent itself to high energy and eager response to the music.
The element that completed the recipe for such a great show was of course, the music. The band opened up early, having limited playing time, and played one long set. The band opened with old familiars like "All In Time" and "Front Porch," intermingled a new song called "Prowler" which explored Latino inspiration along with flowing melodies congruent with the Umphrey's sound. With the special inclusion of guest saxophonists Rich Cohen and John Wiseman, the band brought out many improvisational jazz themes familiar to influences such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, along with funk sounds likened to the Meters and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.
An amusing treat was the tease of Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" which led into the Led Zeppelin classic, "Fool in the Rain." Other songs the band covered which made the "highlight reel" were Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean", Lionel Richie's "All Night Long," The Average White Band's "Pick Up the Piece," Galactic's "Church," and Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening" (perfect with horns).
The band's newer original's such as "Q-Bert," Fussy Dutchman" and "Mamu" kept the music's balance of experimentation and exploration within the bounds that Umphrey's McGee likes: intricate yet fluid. It seemed from an audience standpoint that the band was having fun, especially with their special guests. Only in certain rare occasions did one instrument seem overpowering and there were almost no technical flaws from the musicians or technicians. One drawback was that the band's performance was cut off at a relatively early 12:15 a.m.
By the end of the show, it was undoubtedly that the elements which make a great concert had fallen together perfectly and energy was in the air. Broad smiles amid the crowd spoke loud and clear: "Something exciting is going on."
All Scene Stories for Tuesday, February 1, 2000